Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The rainbow as refracted truth

By arc or by whole, the rainbow reveals refracted truth. Nearby rain and distant mist have equal power to vaporize visible light into bands of color. A single sheet of water, slicing through sunlight, projects the full spectrum against the sky's inverted bowl. If you are lucky enough to be standing far enough from the point where solar brilliance meets suspended water, you will see sunlight scattered into a full ring of color.

MeteorLike metaphorical truth, visible light rarely reveals its constituent parts so regularly and so predictably. Depart ever so modestly from the axis on which truth or light turns, and your eyes will no longer honor one focus. And if you should look instead at an object propelled through the sky, gravity's rainbow will no longer appear to you in closed form. It will rise — and fall — according to a trajectory that will never connect the beginning of truth with its end.

And this is to say nothing of the most treacherous trick of the light, the double deception that awaits time's pilgrim. Race toward the past if you will; yesterday recedes faster than your memory can recall. As you reel backward, redshift stretches memory beyond your field of perception, till truth dissolves in waves filled with heat rather than light. Race instead toward the future, and impatient anticipation crashes against the the invariant pace at which tomorrow arrives. Against that blackness you will see no more than purple tendrils not quite taking full form, the fleeting projections of things yet to materialize.

RainbowPivotal events therefore mark the sections of our lives, slicing at particular points of time through the whole of the truth and leaving us no more enlightened than the objects we trace across our field of vision at speeds well below that of light. Catch them, and you will be rewarded momentarily by the mirage of control. Miss them altogether, and you will rue forever the path that both of you, protagonist and projectile, must follow.

Full-circle rainbow


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Beautiful. But, you forgot to do the math!

5/01/2008 12:30 AM  
Blogger Patrick S. O'Donnell said...

This is indeed enchanting, read both literally and metaphorically. It's interesting to see what metaphors are invoked to get across ideas of pluralism, relativism (of a kind), and perspectivalism with regard to truth. In the Indian tradition one finds the story of the elephant and the blind man and the notion of a many-facted diamond, as well as the image of many paths up to the same summit. In Western philosophy, of late and with Hilary Putnam, we may look to science, hence his interest in the Copenhagen School of physics, specifically, Neils Bohr’s Copenhagen Interpretation, which enables us to appreciate the concept and possibility of complementarity, for “even ‘the empirical world,’ the would of our experience, cannot be adequately or completely described with just one picture, according to Bohr. Instead, we have to make a ‘complementary’ use of different classical pictures—wave pictures in some experimental situations, particle pictures in others—and give up the idea of a single picturable account to cover all situations.” Or, we may attempt to draw a lesson from Kurt Gödel’s demonstration that one cannot definitively prove the formal consistency of an axiomatic system from within the principles of that system.

At any rate, as contemporary epistemologists remind us, foundationalist epistemological projects and exclusively Euclidean approaches to cognitive systematization are no longer plausible. We now realize the significance of categorial and conceptual mediation in our descriptions of the world, a realization that commits us to neither thorough-going relativism nor a subectivist conception of truth. In metaphysics at least, it seems we cannot get outside, as it were, our metaphysical conceptions. My former teacher, Nandini Iyer, explains this well in a recent contribution to a Festschrift for another former teacher, the great scholar of Samkhya and Yoga philosophies, Gerald James Larson:

"To affirm that there can be several different systems all giving us, at the same time, varying and yet legitimate ‘true’ metaphysical descriptions of the world does not…necessarily entail that there are many realities, that nothing is absolutely real, or, put less dramatically, that there is no such thing as a single, context neutral description or account of the world, that is, as the world really is. It only means that no metaphysical description of it can be outside every possible conceptual framework, but Reality itself is. Nor does it follow that any assertions about this ‘real’ or ‘true’ world beyond all conceptual frameworks, are nonsense. We need not accept a very different solution, such as that offered by Kant—that there is a world in which there exists the ‘thing-in-itself,’ but that we can never directly know this world. [....] The conceptual frameworks we build in the realm of rational thought are not useless just because they cannot describe Ultimate Reality. Serious examination of, reflection on, these explanatory and interpretive schemes, their differences and overlaps, are crucial to expanding and deepening our understanding of reality, even if these conceptual frameworks (any or all possible combinations and collections of them) cannot bring us the Absolute Truth. If nothing else, they enable us to understand the relativity of conceptual truths and structures, and make us see what Pascal meant when he said that the highest function of reason is to show us the limitations of reason."

It happens to be the case, however, that "Indian classical philosophy, since it is always connected with religion, must and does believe with complete assurance in the possibility of human beings actually attaining to a perfect knowledge of Reality—a ‘scientia intuitiva’ that leads to the Divine or the Absolute Truth."

A more circumspect expression of Iyer’s principal point is provided by Nicholas Rescher: “For all practical purposes—and for all implementable theoretical purposes as well—a plurality of beliefs about the truth (a plurality of visions) is a plurality of formulations of the true (a plurality of versions). And this fact is something we must somehow come to terms with.” Indeed, as Rescher has also noted,

"The cognitive stance that people have is inevitably conditioned by the experiential flow of their interactions with reality. And experience is something that is bound to differ from age to age, culture to culture, and even--to some extent--from person to person [perhaps the reason why Gandhi said that, in truth, there are as many religions as there are individuals]. On this basis it becomes clear that a pluralism of cognitive commitments is an unavoidable part of the natural scheme of things."

These are among the reasons we cannot assess worlviews in toto, as Putnam makes plain: “’Is our own way of life right or wrong?’ is a silly question, although it isn’t silly to ask if this or that particular feature of our way of life is right or wrong, and ‘Is our view of the world right or wrong?’ is a silly question, although it isn’t silly to ask if this or that particular belief is right or wrong." In fact, sensitive, empathetic, reflective, and critical global worldview description and analysis is in its infancy. We are only now beginning to appreciate the unique logic and forms of rationality found in non-Western worldviews. And we are still in the process of formulating the possible candidates for cross-culturally and comparatively acceptable criteria for the analysis and evaluation of worldviews, especially if we grant that the assumptions and methods of modern Western philosophy are not necessarily privileged in such an enterprise, and in fact remain open to learning (about its own myths and presuppositions, for example) from this cross-cultural encounter. Contemporary Western philosophy, in other words, does not possess a monopoly on either rationality or truth. The late Ninian Smart, a doyen in the comparative study of religion, argued that it is through the comparative analysis of worldviews that we will generate the normative conceptual resources and categories for worldview evaluation, if only because the process itself will serve to “detribalize Westerners,” that is, enable us to overcome our dispositional tendency to “treat our tradition normatively, either explicitly or secretly." In some measure, of course, and in particular in the beginning, we unavoidably treat our own tradition(s) as normative in the comparative study of worldviews (We ‘see’ or act and think on the basis of our own norms, rules and values, i.e., ‘on the [normative] basis of our own concepts, because they are the logical space in which we move and without which we could see nothing at all,' in the words of Henry McDonald.) but Smart’s point, and that of others who have thought long and hard about such study, is that we will become more self-critical with regard to our own worldview(s) in the process, and that such encounters and dialogues will lead to neither absolute relativism nor radical scepticism.

Of course much more might be said on all of these topics, but we'll leave that for another day.

5/01/2008 9:08 AM  
Blogger Patrick S. O'Donnell said...

Having finished my morning cup of tea, I remembered that Raimundo Panikkar (yet another former teacher!) included the model of the rainbow (among several models) in his book, The Intrareligious Dialogue (1978): "the different religious traditions are like the almost infinite number of colors that appear once the divine or simply white light of reality falls on the prism of human experience: it diffracts into innumerable traditions, doctrines and religions."

5/01/2008 9:21 AM  
Blogger Uma Anandane said...

Loved this explanation.I was searching for full rainbow ,and I have stumbled upon your blog.Nice picture :)

6/08/2011 8:19 AM  

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